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Music | Opinion

Is The Beatles album 'Sgt. Pepper' really a masterpiece?


In recent years, the art of rock and roll revisionism has sent millions of original fans into disarray. Whether it be the reevaluation of a song’s subject matter, like The Rolling Stones and ‘Brown Sugar’, the new eye we cast over our rock stars’ pasts as part of a more progressive society or indeed the new values and viability we apply to their work, looking back at rock and roll history is always likely to garner a bit of online hate. It’s why I’ve been locking the doors, double-checking the exits and setting up a zombie-style escape plan in preparation for sharing with you why, despite multiple awards, accolades and polls claiming so, The Beatles’ 1967 album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band isn’t quite the masterpiece you think.

Let me be very clear; I am not here to argue that the record isn’t a valuable piece of work. Nor am I coming close to suggesting it is the worst album from The Beatles. However, even in comparison to their own work, it is easy to see why this record has a habit of dividing opinion and leaving a large section of society dismissing the lads from Liverpool as jovial, forgettable and, dare I say it, a little silly.

Equally, if there was one album which signified the breadth of talent The Beatles had at their disposal, it was Sgt. Pepper — that cannot be denied. Released in 1967 as part of the band’s new move away from being the Fab Four and heading towards a more conceptualised piece, the album is widely, and quite rightly, seen as Paul McCartney’s best work. Macca became the artistic drive of the band during this time as Lennon became distracted by fame and the band’s manager, and when Brian Epstein, sadly passed away months later, the dye was set. With the new impetus to create, McCartney constructed one of the most resolute pieces of art the band ever composed and provided a neat escape plan for the inhabitants of The Beatles’ crazy world.

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Built out of McCartney’s vision for a new band, outside of The Beatles, which could not only sing the songs that he had always hoped for but could break out of the pop music mould to create soundscapes and sonic narratives. In this plan, it is hard to ignore his and the band’s success. “Sgt Pepper is one of the most important steps in our career. It had to be just right,” claimed Lennon in the year of its release. “We tried, and I think succeeded in achieving what we set out to do. If we hadn’t, then it wouldn’t be out now.”

Of course, among the tracks on the album is some of the band’s best work. ‘A Day in the Life‘ is an orchestral orgasm of creative collaboration that highlights the songwriting prowess of the band’s beating heart. There is also one of Harrison’s finest songs for the group too; ‘Within You Without You’ which stands the test of time, and is a truly brilliant piece of pop. ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’ also features on the record as one of the group’s better efforts, while ‘Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds’ is wholeheartedly iconic. These moments, however, are best enjoyed separately from the otherwise gunky concoction of music hall-driven ditties.

Over time, the album’s immovable concept has hampered its viewing, as Lennon noted, “the Pepper myth is bigger” than any other record format heir discography. Nowadays, the album’s uniqueness and idiosyncrasies can be easily chalked off as indulgent globs of self-love. While nobody can deny the voluminous impact the record had on culture as well as the music scene; the band certainly weren’t the first to bring acid into rock and roll or design a sparkling new concept to be lost in. Instead, they were the first to try and commercialise it through Paul McCartney’s pop sensibilities.

That’s not to tarnish McCartney’s viewpoint as deliberately geared towards record sales or cash in the bank. The truth is that McCartney always had this kind of album in his locker and had been trying to push the band towards this sound for some time. Heck, ‘When I’m Sixty Four’ had been in his journal for years before the Fab Four finally took it on. It is this process. However, that has always left me with a bitter taste from Pepper — the record should be more keenly thought of as a McCartney solo album.

“Now that we only play in the studios, and not anywhere else, we have less of a clue what we’re going to do,” said George Harrison around the time of the LPs recording. “Now when we go into the studio, we have to start from scratch, just thrashing it out and doing it the hard way. If Paul has written a song, he comes into the studio with it in his head. It’s very hard for him to give it to us, and for us to get it. When we suggest something, it might not be what he wants because he hasn’t got it in his head like that. So it takes a long time.” This was a process than hampered the band’s creative output but also fractured their relationships with one another.

Before the tragic death of Brian Epstein, the role of leadership was very clear. Epstein and Lennon would drive the band commercially and creatively. However, as time passed, McCartney would take a more prominent role as Lennon became intoxicated by fame and its trappings. After Epstein’s death, McCartney took full control, and it shook the band’s foundations, especially for George Harrison. But, in truth, the tone for the band had been set months before with this album. The guitarist was a more mature figure when the band reassembled for Sgt. Pepper. More confident in his abilities, he created a new dynamic that the other Beatles found a challenging adjustment.

Additionally, his experiences in India created a new mindset that alienated him from the rote band atmosphere of the past. “After [the India trip], everything else seemed like hard work,” Harrison said in The Beatles Anthology. “It was a job, like doing something I didn’t really want to do, and I was losing interest in being ‘fab’ at that point.”

The parts of performing and recording that he did enjoy, namely recording live with his bandmates, were also eradicated during the making of the album. “Sgt Pepper was the one album where things were done slightly differently,” he continues. “A lot of the time … we weren’t allowed to play as a band so much. It became an assembly process – just little parts and then overdubbing.” According to McCartney, ‘Within You Without You’ might have been Harrison’s sole impactful contribution to the album. “George wasn’t very involved in that album,” McCartney would say later. “He just had one song. It’s really the only time during the whole album, the main time, I remember him turning up.”

McCartney relished the relinquished responsibility and grabbed the reins as quickly as possible. His unique song structure and affection for traditional British musicality would see him deliver several songs that were out of rhythm with the rest of the band’s canon. ‘Fixing a Hole’, ‘She’s Leaving Home’, ‘Lovely Rita’ and the title track all derived from this sense of new direction and saw McCartney provide a brand new set of controls from which to steer the good ship Beatle.

Looking back, some 55 years later, it is difficult to form an opinion that isn’t rendered by the years that have passed. Groundbreaking though it was, with the years that have gone by much of the work on Sgt. Pepper can feel insignificant and trite. Like revisiting the fairground you once attended as a child, the rides are less exciting, the space restrictive, and the music in the background is now unsuitably childlike. Despite this disappointment, the memories of those moments whirling and twirling through the cotton candy smells, flashing lights, and dizzying excitement are still as intoxicating as before. Simply, now you know that there are much better experiences out there if you just move further afield.

Sgt. Pepper should never be considered a bad album. As a piece of art, much of it still stands up today. A truly remarkable feat for a record made nearly six decades ago. However, to forever categorise it as The Beatles’ best, let alone as the greatest album ever made, purely based on the memory of its impact, is to discount the years of plentiful creation that followed, the cracks in the foundation of the band it left behind, and the removal of the group’s collaborative process. Like it or not, Sgt. Pepper was the beginning of the end for The Beatles, and for that reason alone, it will always leave me a little cold.